No fixed order of ministry intended to be permanent is described in the NT any more than an agreed sacramental theology. Developments into Papal, Episcopalian (having bishops presiding over dioceses), and Presbyterian systems came later; they can all claim some continuity with what is in the NT, and so the criterion for assessing them by modern Christians must be theological rather than historical research. What kind of ministry safeguards and expresses the unity of the Christian community? What kind of ministry gives appropriate freedom to individuals to grow into spiritual maturity and to exercise their personal gifts?
Eight different kinds of gifts are bestowed on members of the Church, according to Paul (1 Cor. 12: 28) and none is superior, none inferior. There was a ‘priesthood of all believers’, in that all Christians offered themselves as a sacrifice according to the pattern laid down by Christ; and all such personal offerings (according to the letter to the Hebrews) are taken up into the one perpetual offering made by the one eternal high priest of the new covenant—Jesus. All Christian believers therefore comprise a priestly body, called to proclaim the gospel of reconciliation between God and mankind.
However, Jesus had chosen twelve apostles and on these Twelve (the defection of Judas caused a vacancy, filled by the election of Matthias, Acts 1: 26) rested the leadership of the Church. Paul was added to the group as an extraordinary member (1 Cor. 15: 8–9) with a special responsibility for a mission to the Gentiles (Gal. 2: 9). Local Churches had local leaders who acted under the general supervision of apostles (1 Thess. 5: 12) and some, like Timothy, could be dispatched to Churches by an apostle and armed with his authority. At Jerusalem there was a group, or ‘college’, of elders (presbyters) in charge, with James the Lord's brother as president, and probably other local Churches were similarly organized, following the precedent of the synagogues. One of the leaders would have presided at the Eucharist. In the Pastoral Epistles (to Timothy and Titus) there is development: there Paul's delegates themselves delegate authority to successors (2 Tim. 2: 2) and we meet the word episcopoi being used of the presbyters (Titus 1: 7; 1 Tim. 3: 1–7).
Male and female (Rom. 16: 1) deacons have a share in Church government (1 Tim. 3: 8–13) but they are probably not the successors of the Seven appointed to help the apostles (Acts 6: 3), who seem rather to have been the first presbyters, with a duty to ‘serve tables’, that is, undertake charitable works, although that phrase might also cover presiding at the table of the Eucharist. The deacons mentioned by Paul have a status as officials, but what they were for is not clear: except that the whole ministry is for the purpose of service.
By the time of Ignatius, who wrote seven letters while journeying to Rome, where he was martyred in 107 CE, each local Church is deemed to have a bishop at its head, and the ministries of charismatic prophets and teachers passed into abeyance. By the 3rd cent. the bishop had taken over many of the administrative functions of the diaconate, and presbyters had assumed powers formerly exercised only by bishops. This was caused by the expansion of the Church beyond the towns into the surrounding countryside—where resistance to Christianity had for long been strongest: our word ‘pagan’ even comes straight from the Latin paganus meaning ‘villager’.
At the beginning of the 3rd cent., the term ‘priest’ is used for the first time of a Christian minister, and language reminiscent of the Temple cult was applied to presbyters, so that the OT orders of high priests, priests, and Levites were being used as the model for bishops, presbyters, and deacons.
In 1552 Martin Bucer proposed the use of the titles ‘superintendent’, ‘presbyters of the first order’, and ‘presbyters of the second order’ for the traditional bishop, priests, and deacons, but the Anglican ordinal (the authorized rite for ordination) did not adopt the proposal. Whatever the doctrine, the Church has professed itself to be a ‘royal priesthood’, declaring to the world the wonderful deeds of God (1 Pet. 2: 9), through many vicissitudes of pastoral ministry.